How to write the history of your business or organisation

Posted by Jackie Russell

People are our stories.

When they depart from our workplaces, communities and eventually their mortal bodies – their stories go with them.

In New Zealand, August is family history month and at Chatterbox PR we decided to look at business and organisation history.

In 2014, Chatterbox PR director Jackie Russell, worked with Autofile magazine and the Imported Motor Vehicle Industry Association to write the history of Japanese used cars being imported into Aotearoa.

It was a ride that had as many ups and downs as her old Mazda Familia that slowed down on the hills if the air-con was running but once From the rising sun to the long white cloud: the history of used car importing to New Zealand was published, it was a proud moment.

Why write the history of a business or organisation?

Celebrating significant milestones is motivating for business owners and staff members, and provides opportunities for positive PR.

Publishing an organisation’s history is an opportunity to re-connect with significant stakeholders, put on your party hats and celebrate accomplishments.

It’s also a good opportunity to laugh at crimes against fashion, talk about tough situations that once were commercially sensitive and acknowledge people who made a difference.

Organisational history may not seem highly relevant or likely to make the next blockbuster movie but the stories and the people behind them, will be good reading for future generations.

Planning a business or organisational history

Companies need to determine what it is they want to achieve when recording and sharing their history.

Is it a book that will be publicly accessible?

Is it a digital document that is accessible online only?

Is it a book that is shared in-house and with external stakeholders?

Project manager who is enthusiastic about the history

There needs to be one or two people in the organisation who are dedicated to the compilation of the history.

They will have the enthusiasm to drive the project and they should know how to contact the people to be interviewed to tell their stories.

The project manager may have access to important archives, including newspaper clippings, photographs, voice recordings, film archives and organisation documents.

Budget

Invariably, the budget will determine what can be achieved and at the start of the history project the organisation needs to prioritise what must be included and what would be nice to have but not essential. 

You may consider grant applications if your organisation meets criteria.  

Have a look at the Ministry for Culture & Heritage or Community Matters for possible grant ideas.

Sponsorship may be more viable if your history project offers some value for multiple stakeholders and this was how the publisher sourced some funds for From the rising sun to the long white cloud: the history of used car importing to New Zealand.

Who are the people who know the organisation history?

New Zealand’s baby boomers are rapidly leaving the workforce and even their hometowns, moving to the beach for a more relaxed lifestyle.

The history of an organisation needs to include the anecdotal stories of the people who influenced the journey the company took.

Older people have numerous stories that others may not have heard and are quite likely to have additional photographs and archives.

Be methodical with a timeline and be prepared for people to get the details incorrect.

Reputable, external resources can be used to clarify events and verify dates, and libraries and museums have useful reference materials.

If possible, include different people’s perspectives. The way a general manager recalls an event may be quite different from a secretary’s story.

What significant events and dates should be included in the business history?

There will be some commonly known events and dates that should form the foundation of the history.

These could be:

  • Foundation date of an organisation
  • Changes of ownership
  • Tragedies, e.g. fires, storms, deaths, accidents
  • Moves to different places
  • New buildings
  • Venturing into new markets/countries
  • Lobbying government for changes

 

What are the critical challenges when compiling a business’s history?

A workflow timeline should be developed, and any critical challenges need to be identified.

Prioritise interviewing frail older people or those who are leaving town.

Some people may be reluctant to tell their story and it may take introductions and support from others to encourage them to be interviewed.

There may be legal considerations if an old story defames anyone, copyright laws must be observed and consent to use someone’s archives must be gained and stored.

The history of businesses and organisations is important, and it can be intriguing, hilarious and insightful.

 

What was commonplace back in the day is of great interest to younger generations, especially in an era when most records are digital and potentially, will be inaccessible in the future.

Record it now.

Planning business/organisation history